Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Language input is highly variable; phonological, lexical, and syntactic features vary systematically across different speakers, geographic regions, and social contexts. Previous evidence shows that language users are sensitive to these contextual changes and that they can rapidly adapt to local regularities. For example, listeners quickly adjust to accented speech, facilitating comprehension. It has been proposed that this type of adaptation is a form of implicit learning. This study examined a similar type of adaptation, syntactic adaptation, to address two issues: (1) whether language comprehenders are sensitive to a subtle probabilistic contingency between an extraneous feature (font color) and syntactic structure and (2) whether this sensitivity should be attributed to implicit learning. Participants read a large set of sentences, 40% of which were garden-path sentences containing temporary syntactic ambiguities. Critically, but unbeknownst to participants, font color probabilistically predicted the presence of a garden-path structure, with 75% of garden-path sentences (and 25% of normative sentences) appearing in a given font color. ERPs were recorded during sentence processing. Almost all participants indicated no conscious awareness of the relationship between font color and sentence structure. Nonetheless, after sufficient time to learn this relationship, ERPs time-locked to the point of syntactic ambiguity resolution in garden-path sentences differed significantly as a function of font color. End-of-sentence grammaticality judgments were also influenced by font color, suggesting that a match between font color and sentence structure increased processing fluency. Overall, these findings indicate that participants can implicitly detect subtle co-occurrences between physical features of sentences and abstract, syntactic properties, supporting the notion that implicit learning mechanisms are generally operative during online language processing.